Does the “Memory Palace” Strategy Really Work? And Is It Something Musicians Could Use?

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During my early music studies, when I was working through the Suzuki books and starting to learn longer pieces that I’d have to perform from memory, my mom established a memorization process.

Even before all of the notes were in my fingers, she would divide the piece up into meaningful sections, and then she’d use colored pencils to shade in each section with a different color.

Then, she’d ask me to create a story or scene for each section. Which would usually center around something in my life – like something that happened at school, or an activity with friends in the neighborhood. Sometimes she’d even draw part of the story into the music itself.

I don’t think I ever had a memory issue in performance when we went through this process.

And while this coloring/storytelling process isn’t a thing that’s been studied per se (that I’m aware of), it does seem somewhat similar to a memory strategy that is often used by those who participate in memory competitions.

It’s known as the “memory palace” technique. Or more officially, the “method of loci.”

The basic idea is to make it easier to recall new information by associating it with images of physical locations that are already well-ingrained in memory. Where you would place new bits of to-be-remembered info in different rooms in your house, for instance. Or along the path you might take from your home to the grocery store. Which in theory makes it easier to retrieve this info as you retrace your steps along the familiar path.

It’s an intriguing idea, and you can learn more about it in this TED talk where journalist Joshua Foer explains how he used this to win the 2006 USA memory championships. 

But does it really work?

I mean, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence which suggests that this can facilitate some pretty incredible feats of remembering in the short term. But is this a strategy that leads to durable, reliable, long-term memory as well?

A memory encoding and recall test

A team of researchers from several European universities (Wagner et al., 2021) recruited 50 participants to take part in a memory study.

Everyone started off with a memory encoding and recall test, where they sat in front of a computer screen, and were presented with a list of 72 words, one at a time. Each word would appear on the screen for 3 seconds, and then there’d be a blank screen for 2-5 seconds, and then the next word would appear for 3 seconds, and so on.

20 minutes after completing this encoding task, participants were asked to write down as many of the 72 words as they could remember.

And 24 hours later, to gauge how deeply these words had been encoded into longer-term memory, they received a phone call from the researchers, and were once again asked to write down as many words as they could remember.

Three groups

The participants were then divided up into three groups. One group (the memory training group), was taught how to use the method of loci strategy, and were given instructions on how to continue practicing this strategy on their own (using the memocamp platform).

Another group (active control group) received training on a different type of memory (working memory). This is the temporary mental “scratch pad” you use to keep information in your head until you can store it somewhere more permanent. Like repeating a phone number in your head until you can write it down on a piece of paper.

And then the last group (passive control group) received no training at all.

Six weeks later…

After six weeks of daily memory practice1, participants repeated the memory encoding and recall task with a fresh list of 72 words.

And was there any chance in their memory performance?

Before method of loci training

In the participants’ initial memory recall test, before anyone received any training, all three groups performed about the same.

When tested 20-min after going through the list of words, the memory training group recalled about 25 of 72 words in the short-term recall test.

Similarly, the active controls recalled about 31 words, and the passive controls recalled 29.

And when tested 24 hours later – which is a better indication of the durability of their memory – the memory training group was able to recall just 16 of the words on the list. 

And the active and passive control group participants both recalled 19.

After method of loci training

After receiving method of loci training, the results changed quite a bit.

Instructed to use the method of loci strategy when going through the list of words, the memory training group was able to recall 62 out of the 72 words at the 20-min test. 

Meanwhile, the active controls managed just 42, and the passive controls only 36.

24 hours later, the method of loci-trained participants were still able to recall 56 of the words on the list. 

Compared to 31 and 21 for the active and passive controls.

Takeaways

The results suggest that the method of loci strategy does lead to more durable memory encoding and retention than trying to memorize a list of words without a structured strategy.

But is this something you could apply to music?

Well, memorizing music is certainly a different challenge than memorizing a list of words, but I think maybe it could work, if you combine this with a complementary strategy involving “performance cues.”

We took a look at performance cues a few years ago in a previous article here. You should totally check it out, but the gist, is that generating labels to describe the various structural or expressive features of a piece, can be a helpful way of encoding the different sections of a piece into memory. Because having names for particular moments, like “the b-minor section” or “recap” or “dark and stormy night section,” seem to facilitate recall of the music associated with that cue.

After you’ve come up with your performance cues, you could then create a mental pathway for the piece. Like the walk from your home to your school, and the various landmarks along the way. 

And then, you could drop your performance cues along this path, placing each chunk of music at each of the landmarks you’ve identified, making it easier to remember which phrase or section comes after which.

Which will hopefully make memorizing music a little more fun and intentional. And minimize your chances of getting lost, or stuck in one of those dreaded endless loops in Bach, where you keep going around and around in circles, with no idea how to get out and make your way to the end…

Today’s the day!

And speaking of going around and around in circles, I spent most of my life wondering why even though I’d diligently repeat difficult passages over and over, no matter how many repetitions I put in, things were still pretty hit or miss on stage.

In hindsight, I recognize that it wasn’t because I didn’t care or try hard enough, but because I just didn’t know how to practice very effectively, nor how to practice specifically for the unique demands of performing.

So when I began learning about the mental side of performing, and strategies around effective learning, it was pretty gratifying to see that practicing, for once, actually made a real difference. I improved faster. The improvements began to stick, from one day to the next. And they even transferred to the stage!

This is the sort of thing I typically teach in in-person classes, but starting next Saturday, April 10th, I’ll be teaching a live, weekly, 4-session, performance psychology “essentials” class via Zoom. We’ll meet online, and try out various research-based strategies for being more effective in the practice room, and also experiment with techniques for managing nerves, getting into the zone, and playing with more confidence on stage (or in front of a webcam).

Registration ends TODAY (Sunday, April 4th) at 11:59pm Pacific, so if you’ve been feeling demotivated lately, frustrated with your practice, or looking to change things up a bit but aren’t quite sure how, this might be just the thing to jump-start your practice, and help you feel more positive not just about your practicing, but about your performing as well.

You can get all the details here: Performance Psychology Essentials

 


References

Wagner, I. C., Konrad, B. N., Schuster, P., Weisig, S., Repantis, D., Ohla, K., Kühn, S., Fernández, G., Steiger, A., Lamm, C., Czisch, M., & Dresler, M. (2021). Durable memories and efficient neural coding through mnemonic training using the method of loci. Science Advances, 7(10), eabc7606. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abc7606

Footnotes

  1. 30 minutes per day

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

Comments

2 Responses

  1. Hi Noa-
    I interviewed 2 researchers in 2018 on my sabbatical who have done systematic studies of music memorization. Check out Tania Lisboa at the Royal College of Music, and Roger Chaffin, UConn for their papers. Roger also has a book published on performance prep including memory ‘Practicing Perfection’. He is not a musician. Tania is a cellist/pianist.

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